Wells Fargo & Co. chairman Paul Hazen lived up to star billing at the Retail Delivery '97 conference by sounding like Bill Gates.

In a speech 24 hours after one by the software magnate, Mr. Hazen endorsed one of the Microsoft Corp. chairman's big ideas-the electronic presentment and automated payment of bills via personal computer.

In perhaps the strongest public statement on the subject by a major bank chief executive officer, Mr. Hazen called it "a significant evolution in banking" and "a competitive edge that can greatly enhance our position in on-line services."

Mr. Gates' pitch Wednesday was along similar lines. He said bill presentment is "a key area for banks (and is) at the top of the list of ways to get customers to their Web sites on a regular basis."

Mr. Hazen's remarks indicated that Wells' relationship with Mr. Gates and Microsoft and its significant investments in Internet-based and other automated services have strong support from the top of the bank.

The comments also reinforced the notion in the electronic banking community that Wells Fargo may have a closer philosophical and business affinity to Microsoft than any major financial institution. Wells was among the first in line to test Microsoft's technical framework for Internet banking, code-named Marble, and it will be in the pilot of the MSFDC automated bill processing program, the software leader's joint venture with First Data Corp.

Sounding like a true technologist, Mr. Hazen said he expects customer acceptance of innovations like Internet banking and bill presentment to follow patterns seen earlier with telephone banking and automated teller machines.

He even quoted Mr. Gates' "rule" that promoters of a new technology tend to overestimate acceptance in the first two years but underestimate the 5- to 10-year proliferation. He pointed out that Wells made its decision to provide Internet banking in May 1995, and most of its more than 400,000 current on-line customers are reaching Wells via that medium.

Wells executive vice president Dudley Nigg, speaking earlier at the Bank Administration Institute's annual retail technology conference, said he expects 700,000 on-line customers by the end of next year and a million the year after that.

"This is not R&D any more," Mr. Nigg said.

"Eventually it reaches critical mass and explodes," said Mr. Hazen.

Mr. Hazen and other Wells executives were engaged much of this year in damage control in the aftermath of poor post-merger integration results at First Interstate Bancorp. Wells' stock price was depressed for months but sentiment turned recently and the price shot up wildly on takeover speculation Thursday.

The San Francisco banking company had always prided itself on its consistent technological commitment, and admiring comments still come its way from other quarters.

Wells is one of five on Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette analyst Thomas K. Brown's list of best-positioned U.S. bank holding companies. (Royal Bank of Canada is also in that league.) Mr. Brown said Wells is far and away the best when it comes to "coordinating channel management and pricing"- managing the evolution of customers and services across a range of technologies and access alternatives.

"What Wells is doing in delivery systems is one of the most important changes in the banking industry today," Mr. Brown told the BAI conference.

"What I like about Wells is that they have chosen to do something a whole lot different." He especially praised its supermarket banking strategy that allowed it to close about half of 45 branches in Sacramento, for example, but in the end increase the total number of banking locations to 90. Expenses fell 20% in the area while sales rose 25%.

Wells' unique course also won praise from Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, a renowned guru of competitive strategy. Mr. Porter contended that strategy is defined by making choices and focusing, not trying to be all things to all people. He put Wells in a category of winners with companies like Vanguard Group, Southwest Airlines, and Enterprise Rent a Car, which did not follow industry norms.

He described Wells' as an "ultra-convenience strategy ... focused on the consumer. Not all customers want convenience, and that's fine. Wells says, 'For those that really want convenience, we got it.'"

He complimented Wells for "selecting technologies and a pace of change based on its positioning," rather than trying to keep up with others' "best practices," which would be competitively futile. "When something new comes along-the Internet, WebTV, electronic bill presentment-they add it."

Mr. Hazen spoke of a "continuum of service options," ranging from branches to phones to the Internet and a variety of terminal devices and appliances including the Mondex smart card system that Wells co-owns-that must be in place as customers inevitably "demand more efficient ways of doing their banking."

He conceded that trends and technologies can be unpredictable, and Wells does not "have all the answers." But "institutions that base their approaches to retail banking on the sweeping changes in lifestyles and technology will be in the strongest position for the future."

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